ARCH project: NET- Managing our Natural and Cultural Heritage Assets
Erasmus+ Study Visit to Slovenia
4 – 11 July 2016
Erin Fulton, RSPB Scotland
On our first night at the Mlakar pension, Markovec we were asked ‘When I say “Slovenia”, what do you think about?’ Most of us provided some kind of answer, some vaguer than others, which was quickly picked up on by our friend. ‘People don’t know much about Slovenia’ she shrugged, exasperated more by Slovenia’s generally low profile globally rather than our lack of knowledge.
Still, I hope that now if asked what comes to mind when I think of Slovenia, that I could provide a more satisfying answer. It is, I would say, a rich and varied country where densely forested hillsides tower over meadows that sparkle with flowers and insects. Virtually landlocked aside from a few miles of coast line and accommodates a small but proud population committed to making the country succeed. Our trip took us to visit many interesting people and places, each providing their own insight into how Slovenia continues to change.
Over the course of seven days we were chauffeured by the enthusiastic Bojan round some of the best that Slovenia has to offer. Stops included the leafy expanse of Krokar Forest, Ljublijana marsh nature park, Secovlja salt pans and the seasonal Cerknica lake. We spoke with individuals from all walks of life including farmers, conservationists, business owners, community activists, chefs and foresters. We often discussed the challenges which are being addressed as the country develops economically and how (or if) this can be reconciled with preserving some of the most biodiverse places in Europe. These conversations have given life and context to the themes discussed in the chapters which follow and encouraged us to reflect on Scotland’s development and on our own cultural and natural heritage.
- Supporting High Nature Value farming: a shared challenge for Slovenia and Scotland
Vicki Swales, RSPB Scotland
Slovenia’s pattern of rural land use – and its contrast with Scotland – is apparent almost immediately you arrive in the country. Forestry is extensive and dominates the landscape; 56.1% of the land area compared to Scotland’s 18%. But it is the lowland farmland that grabs my attention. Meadows rich with flowers, alive with bees and butterflies, and everywhere the sweet smell of mown grass and hay being made. At home, few places can compare with the diversity of life experienced in Slovenia’s meadows; a walk on the machair habitat of the Western Isles in spring is one that does come to mind. Over the course of the week, I reflected on the challenge of maintaining these High Nature Value systems of farming in the face of pressures to intensify and specialise and on how to support rural development more generally.
Farming facts and figures – Slovenia v Scotland
It is difficult to make a direct comparison of farming in Slovenia and Scotland but the table below gives a brief overview. The most notable difference is that of farm size with the average in Slovenia being just 6 ha. We visited a couple of tourist farms (Bernard Mlakar’s eco-farm and Abram) which at c.40-50 ha were relatively large. The Scottish average is highly skewed by a relatively small number of very large holdings accounting for a high proportion of the area. Nine per cent of holdings account for 76 per cent of land (4,497 holdings of 200 hectares or over in size, with 4.26 million hectares of area between them). Conversely, 52 per cent of holdings account for 1.6 per cent of the total land (27,317 holdings of less than ten hectares in size, with 90,456 hectares of land). Perhaps the greatest similarities between Scotland and Slovenia are in the formers small farms and crofts of the Highlands and Islands which are often less than 20ha and, like many farms in Slovenia run on a part-time basis or reliant on other forms of income e.g. from tourism.
|Population||2 million||5 million|
|Total agricultural area (ha):||602,000||5.6 million|
|-Rough grazing (%)||–||50|
|– Permanent grassland (%)||57.9||25|
|– Arable (%)||35.5||10|
|-Organic farming (%)||8.1%||2.5|
|Area designated ANC (%)||75.3||85|
|No. agriculture holdings||72,000||53,000|
|Average size of holding (ha)||6||101|
|Young farmers (%)||7.7||10|
Source: Factsheet on 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme for Slovenia; Factsheet on 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme for Scotland; http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Statistics/Browse/Agriculture-Fisheries/agritopics/farmstruc On the ground, the farming we saw in the karst region south-west of Ljubljana, from the Nanos plateau to Cerknica Lake and the Ljubljana Marsh Nature Park was small scale, low input-low output and rich in biodiversity. Full time farmers are relatively few in number with most people owning a few strips of crop and meadow land, interspersed with those of their neighbours, and working them on a part-time basis, often having other employment. Most commonly own small forest plots as well. Livestock are rarely seen in the fields since most land is not enclosed with fences and hedges; most animals are housed and fed fodder such as hay and maize. The greater proportion of organic farming in Slovenia is also notable. We visited a number of farms and tourism ventures (Helena Kotnik farm, Bernard Mlakar eco farm and Abram) that were operated on a biodynamic or ecological basis and this was often cited as important in relation to the quality of the produce or the tourism offer. In contrast, the area of organic farmland and the number of organic producers and processors has declined in recent years in Scotland. However, the recently published Organic Action Plan 2016-2020 recognises the merits of organic farming in Scotland and has ambitions to grow this sector. Given the growing EU market and consumer demand for organic produce, it seems that both Slovenia and Scotland have some potential to help supply it. High Nature Value farming ‘High Nature Value (HNV) farming’ is a concept that developed during the 1990s to describe low intensity farming systems and practices that are important for biodiversity. In HNV systems, the number of animals grazed or fed on a set area tends to be low, few artificial inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers are used and there is a greater mix of landscape features such as hedgerows, trees and ponds in the landscape. This low input management means that landscapes dominated by HNV farming systems retain some of the highest levels of farmland biodiversity. HNV farming systems face a number of economic and social pressures and are under threat across the EU. In some areas, farming is intensifying contributing to wildlife declines and other problems such as water pollution whilst in others, people no longer work the land and it is abandoned. This trend towards people – especially the younger generation – no longer working their plots (farmland and forestry) was described to us on a number of occasions during our visit. We were also told about the gradual adoption of new technology, the amalgamation of farms and regional specialisation of production taking place in Slovenia; processes that characterised agricultural development across much of Western Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. EU Member States have been encouraged to identify HNV farmland and introduce measures under EU funded Rural Development Programmes (see below) to support their continuation. It appears that some estimates of HNV farmland have been carried out in Slovenia based on land cover and land use data. This estimates that 300,000 ha or 60% of all agricultural land in Slovenia is HNV with some municipalities having especially high percentages – between 80 and 100%. Areas with more than 60% are concentrated in the Alpine and sub-Alpine regions of the north and north-west and in the area we visited, the karst of the south and south-west. In the upland parts of the karst, abandonment and the scrubbing over of pasture pose the main threat. This was apparent on the Nanos plateau and elsewhere. On the lowland areas of the karst, drainage of the extensively managed wet grasslands seemed to be one of the main threats. Scotland also has a relatively high share of HNV farmland at 40%, predominantly found in the Highlands and Islands. The main types of HNV farming systems in Scotland are semi-natural grazing systems and low intensity grassland systems.Our visit to Ljubljana Marsh Nature Park gave us a good example of an area of high biodiversity value dependent on the continuation of HNV farming practices. At 15,000 ha, the area is the largest complex of wet grassland in the country. The water is mostly underground but during heavy spring and autumn rainfall floodwater covers the fields and sometimes settlements. During the 18th and 19th centuries the Marsh was heavily drained and peat was extracted to be used as fuel. So much was extracted that the site was lowered and water, and farming, returned. Traditional farming practices helped create wildlife rich meadows and fields interspersed with alder hedges and the network of waterways. Intensification of farming and urbanisation once again threatened the Marsh and so in order to help protect it, 13,505 ha were designated as a Nature Park in 2008. Some 80% of this is agricultural land, 60% grass and 40% arable (mainly maize) and 83% of it is privately owned. The Marsh holds 200 species of birds, 89 species of butterfly, 48 species of dragonflies and 70% of all amphibians found in Slovenia. Management of the wet meadows and grasslands is important for birds such as corncrake, curlew, whinchat, grasshopper warbler and hen harrier. It is designated as a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive for 25 species and as a Special Area of Conservation under the Habitats Directive for 27 animals, 1 plant and 7 habitats. It is also a candidate Ramsar site. A 2015 survey has shown that management of the Marsh is too intensive with changes in land use and ploughing of meadows (even though not allowed under EU CAP greening rules) being common. Park staff are engaged in a number of activities to help protect and manage it including: monitoring; conservation measures; interpretation work with schools and the public; working with farmers; and, cooperation with the municipalities (the Park extends over 7). A number of EU funded projects are underway, working in partnership with a range of organisations including BirdLife Slovenia. The Park is directly managing 5.5ha of land for nature conservation and working with farmers to get them to undertake management for corncrakes and other meadow species. They have made 130 farm visits and 90 farms are now in EU funded agri-environment schemes which pay for late-cutting and wildlife-friendly cutting of the meadows. This is only scratching the surface though as there are 1,100 farms in the area. These agri-environment measures mirror the Agri-Environment-Climate Scheme in Scotland which includes payments for late cutting for corncrake and other grassland management options. In both countries, these schemes form part of Rural Development Programmes funded by EU and domestic funds. For the 2014-2020 programming period Slovenia has committed €204 million to its Agri-Environment-Climate measure compared to just €318 million in Scotland – a much smaller amount relatively given the size of the country. Meanwhile, both countries allocate the largest share of their RDP budgets to the ‘Areas with Natural Constraint’ measure; €266 million in Slovenia and €551 million in Scotland. Whilst the ANC measure could, in theory, be applied to help support HNV farming, this is not its explicit objective. Both countries clearly face a challenge as to how to maintain their HNV farming systems in the face of pressures to intensify or abandon management. Agri-environment-climate scheme funding can help but, on its own, is usually insufficient to maintain farm viability and other income streams are likely to be needed. Farming and forestry Wood is everywhere in Slovenia, not just the standing forests and woodlands but as fuel and for construction. Almost every house in the villages we travelled through housed a large and well organised wood store to heat a woodburning stove and the houses themselves and related out-buildings were often of timber construction. Most of the farmers we spoke to also owned and managed a small forest plot (although we also heard of problems of declining management and abandonment). Bernard Mlakar had his own saw mill and met all of his on-farm timber needs from his own trees. Others harvested other products such as mushrooms and fruits from their forests. This approach obviously makes sense in a country that has 60% forest but it also suggests that trees are much more part of the culture in Slovenia. This is in sharp contrast to Scotland where the majority of our forests are managed on a large-scale, commercial basis rather than for domestic use or as an adjunct to a farm business. Indeed, Scottish farmers seem reluctant to think of themselves as foresters and vice versa, unlike in Slovenia and many Scandinavian countries where farming and forestry is much more integrated. With the Scottish Government having an aspiration to increase forest cover to 25% of the land area, and farmers often needing alternative incomes streams, a more integrated approach to farming and forestry here could be beneficial on a number of fronts. Farm diversification – rural tourism During our trip we ate at a number of farms which catered for tourists or made and sold food products to them. Abram farm is a working farm with a restaurant and accommodation. Situated on the Nanos plateau at 920m above sea level, the farm is popular with walkers, cyclists and those touring the area. The farm is c50ha of forest and meadow with 25 cows and managed on an ecological basis. Unusually, cattle are grazed outside and the grass is cut early in June and made into big round bales. Machinery is shared with neighbouring farmers. The farm provides most of the meat – beef, pork and chicken plus venison – for the restaurant and also potatoes. Pigs are slaughtered at the farm but cattle must go to the slaughterhouse. The forestry is managed for fuel, timber needed on the farm (the new restaurant was built from farm timber) and to produce some timber for sale. The tourism operation is significant and runs mainly from May to August. It grew out of a small kitchen operation that produced food for forest workers. Today, during the course of a summer weekend, the restaurant feeds between 500-700 people, with around 400 of these on the Sunday. This requires a staff of 10 making the farm a significant employer. The farm also has 8 rooms for guests who mainly come from Slovenia and nearby Italy. The tourism enterprise is the main earner accounting for 80% of income with just 20% from the farm and timber. Conclusion Slovenia is a beautiful country. My visit there reminded me of some of the countryside I used to know here as a child, before the main period of agricultural intensification in the late 1970s and 80s had taken hold and fields were still cut for hay rather than silage. It re-emphasised to me how important it is to try to protect the remaining High Nature Value farming we still have. A few headline conclusions are:
- The threats of agricultural intensification and abandonment are common to both Slovenia and Scotland. The latter has already experienced significant agricultural change but retains some HNV farming which is economically vulnerable. Slovenia now faces the challenge of how to allow its agriculture to develop without damaging its nature value.
- EU funding, especially agri-environment-climate measures, play an important role in supporting HNV farming but on their own are likely to be insufficient and funding is often constrained.
- Farming and forestry appears more integrated in Slovenia at holding level and farmers seem to see their forests as productive assets. Such an approach could be beneficial in Scotland.
- Tourism can offer a viable diversification for some farm businesses – in some cases surpassing the economic value of the farm business – but this is unlikely to be a universal answer to supporting HNV farming.
- Corncrake Conservation in Slovenia
Michal Šúr, RSPB ScotlandOur week long course in Slovenia was fairly intensive and aimed to cover as many relevant topics in a relatively short time scale. We visited a large part of southern Slovenia stretching between the Sečoveljske Soline salt pans at the Adriatic sea, Ljubljansko Barje Nature Park south of Ljubljana to the virgin forests of Kočevje. The biodiversity of the visited places was mind-blowing with meadows full of wild flowers, butterflies and insects and forests composed of native trees. Despite this incredible biodiversity it was interesting to see that Slovenian nature conservation faces similar problems as we do in Scotland – be it lack of communication and understanding between the government and conservation bodies, abandonment of the traditional low scale land management, intensification of farming or disconnection of the young generation with nature.During the course of our trip in Slovenia we spent one day in Ljubljansko Barje Nature Park. Ljubljansko Barje is the largest wetland in Slovenia covering 135 km2 situated on the outskirts of the capital. Under IUCN classification it is a Protected Landscape (Category V), Natura 2000 site and Special Protection Area according to EU Birds Directive. The whole area has about 12,000 inhabitants and its managing institute is “Javni zavod Krajinski park Ljubljansko barje” (Ljubljana Marsh Nature Park Public Institute). With only three staff members it is based in a small town Notranje Gorice. We had a chance to speak to two of them – Maša Bratina and Gregor Lipovšek. Ljubljansko Barje has thousands of years of human history and use and currently holds almost 40% of the Slovenian corncrake population. Corncrake is a migratory species with a short life span (1-2 years) and therefore its decline is very rapid and noticeable if the survival of its offspring is low in several consecutive years. In Slovenia (also in Scotland), the corncrake is listed in the Red list of birds of high conservation concern. Almost everywhere in Europe corncrakes suffered rapid decline. In Scotland they came close to extinction when less than 500 calling males were recorded in the 1990s. In Slovenia last year’s survey of corncrakes recorded only 329 calling males (source Katarina Denac – DOPPS, BirdLife Slovenia). Working on Argyll islands that currently hold 53% of all Scottish corncrakes I was interested to find out more about corncrake conservation at Ljubljansko Barje and in Slovenia. Discussion with Maša and Gregor confirmed that Slovenian corncrakes face similar issues as the Scottish ones. Their decline has been caused mainly by intensification of agriculture or by abandoning of fields and hay meadows. However while numbers of Scottish corncrakes slowly increased in the past two decades and recovered to about 1200 calling males the situation in Slovenia was quite different. Ljubljansko Barje is the most important site for corncrakes in Slovenia but the numbers here have declined from 238 calling males in 1999 to 88 calling males in 2016 (lowest in history). This trend is reflecting the situation in other core corncrake areas in Slovenia (Cerkniško jezero, Julijci, Nanoščica, Planinsko polje). About 46% of the area of Ljubljansko Barje is covered by hay meadows potentially suitable for corncrakes. But it is only about 10% of the area that is currently managed in a way that benefits the breeding corncrake. Seeing the agricultural landscape in Slovenia divided into thousands of small field strips it was not surprising to find out that the whole area of about 135 km2 is managed by approximately 1100 farmers making the average size of one holding about 12ha (on many Scottish farms a single field can exceed this size). The size of most of the fields ranged from 0.3 to 3ha. Anything up to 60 different farmers are signed up annually for the corncrake management scheme. Currently the farmers are being paid 350 EUR/ha if they delay the harvest until after 1st August (in Scotland it is up to £120 per ha). This used to be only 83 EUR/ha but was raised significantly in 2013 to 258 EUR/ha and eventually to 350 EUR/ha in 2016 thanks to the efforts of DOPPS. In Scotland the compensation has remained the same for over 10 years. During our visit in early July it was noticeable that the hay making was underway almost everywhere we went. Most of the fields in Ljubljansko Barje are being cut from the middle of June onwards (in some places as soon as in May) with two to three harvests being taken in one season. In the past early summer haymaking was happening here for generations without having a significant effect on the corncrake population. Field strips of one owner are often separated by many fields of other farmers, often large distances apart, therefore it could take one farmer several weeks before finishing harvest thus creating a rich mosaic of fields with tall and short vegetation benefiting the corncrake. Even if some nests were destroyed in the past by early cutting there were still large areas that were cut later from which the young corncrakes could fledge and sustain the population. What has changed in recent years was that the large adjacent areas are being cut in a very short time period by several large owners rather than hundreds of smaller farmers. A farming system like this would be impossible in most of modern Scotland on an area size of Ljubljansko Barje. It however, highlights the importance of diversity and mosaic of different crops and stages of grassland. Currently the main conservation measure for corncrakes, whether in Slovenia or in Scotland, is delaying of the harvest until 1st August (in some schemes in Scotland even after 1st September). Farmers are then compensated for the loss of the quality of their hay (or silage). Unlike in Scotland, the crop harvested in Slovenia after 1st August is used only for bedding of horses and cattle as it obviously has very low nutritious value. The practice of delaying harvest might help corncrakes in the short term, but as we saw in some fields at Ljubljansko Barje, it can have a significant negative impact on the plant species composition. Formerly herb rich meadows are gradually being invaded by golden rod (Solidago canadensis) and successive long term late cutting eventually results in creation of solid stands of this invasive plant. This issue is not currently considered in any of the schemes. The conservation measures and possible schemes are being discussed at the moment but with many involved parties and different objectives there is a strong push for simple rules that can be easily inspected. Currently it is the simple rule of late cutting after 1st August for five consecutive years. To my knowledge the only population of corncrakes in Europe that has been steadily increasing in numbers in the past twenty years is the Scottish population. This was possible only with a massive input from Agri-Environment Schemes and farming subsidies. Seeing the incredibly bio-diverse fields of Slovenia it is difficult to believe that the corncrake population at Ljubljansko Barje (and in fact the whole Slovenia) is facing the same problems as Scottish corncrakes a couple decades ago. This experience served as a reminder to us that despite the fact that numbers of Scottish corncrakes more than doubled since 1990s the work is far from being over. In Scotland one wonders whether a more sensible long term solution for corncrake would be focusing on the creation and retention of herb rich areas placed away from the silage fields rather than pushing for as late cutting as possible.
- Forest Management in Slovenia
Crystal Maw, RSPB Scotland My knowledge of Slovenia before I took part in this exchange programme amounted to identifying the country on a map, and spelling it correctly. Therefore the experience I gained from the short visit was, as you can imagine, a great learning curve. It was fantastic to delve into part of a country and see first hand the diversity of landscape, and witness how the people and culture have maintained this through low intensity management of small areas, so different to our current situation in Scotland.One of the differences most relevant to me and my job was between the silvicultural histories and systems of Slovenia and Scotland. Scotland is one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with just 18% of the land area covered by trees, almost half of which is non-native plantation. Out of necessity, it is also one of the most efficient timber producers in Europe. But this situation is changing; more emphasis is being put on the biodiversity of our woodlands, mixed broadleaved species are beginning to replace monoculture softwood plantations, and inevitably timber production is slowing down. It should also be noted that the woodland cover figure doesn’t take into account the high number of individual trees outside woodland that we have, due in large part to our history of enclosure by hedgerows, and the number in parklands and wood pastures. Although poor in total woodland cover, Scotland (Britain) is particularly important within a European context for its numerous ancient and veteran trees. Slovenia is one of the most wooded countries in Europe, with around 60% woodland cover, the vast majority consisting native tree species. While travelling around the south of Slovenia, where most of the country’s forest is concentrated, we also got a sense of how unbroken the habitat is in comparison to Scotland’s fragmented and isolated woodlands. View of Krokar virgin forest Looking over Vipava valley, and seeing large expanses of woodland The woodland I manage is southern Scotland’s largest remaining oak woodland. It is part of a SSSI and SAC designated site, and encompasses wood pasture with some veteran trees. My aims are to expand the broadleaved forest and connect it with other woodlands in the area, as well as maintain the wood pasture. I was eager to see how Slovenia manages it’s native woodlands and veteran trees, and how Scotland might be able to apply that ideology to this new wave of woodland management that’s happening. I’m also always seeking better ways of utilising the small amount of timber produced on my reserve. 2 of the farms we visited during the trip had their own sawmills. This was not uncommon, and it appeared that many local people had used timber from their own land to make their own infrastructure or fuel. Despite this, Mirjam Mikulic (Slovenia Forest Service), our wonderful guide around the Krokar virgin forest, told us that many people have either lost interest in or don’t have time to manage their woodland plots anymore. This will certainly lead to a loss of traditional woodworking skills within local communities and also complicate large scale strategic woodland management. I was also surprised to hear that the vast majority of timber produced from state owned forest is exported to Austria and Italy, and there are very few commercial sawmills within Slovenia itself. There seemed very little funding or members of staff for the Slovenia Forest Service, (Forestry Commission equivalent). Many forest tracks were maintained by members of the local community, or the forest service had to contract the maintenance work out. It puzzled me why there was not more promotion of Slovenia’s forests as recreational destinations for tourists and locals alike. It would certainly be an alternative source of income, as the Forestry Commission have successfully done on many of their sites. But this would take a large amount of initial funding to establish infrastructure and recreational hubs, money that perhaps is not available from the government. Areas of forest are not clear felled in Slovenia, they are selectively felled. We saw no scars of wide forest tracks or large blocks of felled and falling trees, which was a pleasant relief. I would like to see the selective felling techniques applied to Scotland’s forestry, rather than the current clearfelling carried out, and I’m sure we will see it more often as we turn to more broadleaved forestry. We did however see the destruction of the bark beetle, infesting fir trees and causing vast brown stains of dead trees on the landscape. That is another very urgent reason to let go of the monoculture of pines and spruces in Scotland, and move to more mixed stands of trees. Bark beetle is spreading through Europe like wildfire at the moment, and I’m sure Britain won’t avoid it. After seeing the kinds of local structures made from locally sourced wood, and the ways wood fuel is stored in Slovenia, I think one of the missing tools for my job is practical carpentry skills. If I can build knowledge within my team about how to use timber in situ, my reserve will become a much more productive place, whilst still fulfilling the conservation objectives. The trip to Slovenia also confirmed for me the benefits of selective thinning techniques and has encouraged me to pursue more ways of getting this done within the oak woodland I manage. It was interesting hearing that many of the management issues faced are similar in both countries, and also reassuring that we share many objectives. I am keen to keep in touch and see how the people we met during the trip tackle current and future challenges, and hope that by continuing to share our experiences, we’ll get it more right than wrong!
- Agriculture in Slovenia: people and plants
Davie Black, Plantlife ScotlandWildflowers have a high cultural cachet in the Karst region of Slovenia. Hay meadows are a common sight in the flatter agricultural lands, surrounded by thickly wooded hills. This hay crop provides essential fodder for farm animals through the year. It is rather surprising to see such a traditional method of land management continue in Slovenia when flower-rich grasslands have become a very rare sight in Scottish agriculture. This lies in a large measure to the system of land tenure still in existence, where land is passed on from generation to generation by subdividing it. This results in what looks to our eyes like a pre-Enclosure landscape from the 18th century, with long, narrow strips for hay and other crops striping the landscape in shades of green and ochre, and an absence of stock fencing over much of the landscape.A farmer’s landholdings then may comprise a number of these strips, and may not even lie next to each other, with a strip here and another one there, to be cut or dug over at the farmer’s convenience. This land tenure is replicated in the forest too, with small plots scattered over an area.This system of land tenure has maintained a rich diversity of wild flowers in the landscape, as the plots are too small to be able to accommodate the large machinery that is in use in many parts of Scotland – plenty of old Fiat tractors were in evidence – so intensive agriculture hasn’t become standard in the hill country. In addition it is rare to see domestic stock out to pasture, which would reduce diversity over time as the flowering heads are browsed. Stock is traditionally kept indoors and fed hay.Our visit took in the limestone karst region in south-west Slovenia, where water behaves strangely. The bedrock is scattered with eroded sinkholes of varying sizes, like an Emmental cheese as our host put it. So when snow melts the pores in the rock fill up and can flood the alluvial plains between the hills, creating seasonal intermittent lakes. When the water flows away it can go deep underground into interconnected cave systems, leaving the surface dry. Some springs were evident in the low-lying marshes near to Ljubljana, but in the hills the sound of rushing water that we are used to hearing in Scotland was absent.The water regime, the mineral-rich geology and the low-intensity farming all conspire to produce a landscape rich in wild flowers, a landscape both visually colourful with the sprinkling of bright colours through the sward, and audible too as the air hummed with wild pollinators doing what they do.The best comparisons that can be made in Scotland are the coastal fringes where crofting is the main agricultural activity. The scale of management, size of machinery and sharing of resources were similar, only this type of farming was much more widespread in Slovenia. However crofting also involves grazing beasts on extensive areas of land which was not a common activity in Slovenia.Plants formed a basis for the farm produce: herb-rich hay for cattle, fruit for both food and drink, fresh salad produce from the abundant small allotment plots that lay in and around the villages. Clearly the local people lived close to the land and appreciated what it gave them – traditional management of resources produced small batches of seasonal produce. These do not produce large incomes by themselves although they are sustainable over the longer term, so the diversification of activities was also very important in order to create diverse income streams.On visiting a couple of eco tourist farms and asking if they thought they were being successful, the reply was yes. On asking if they wanted to expand their operations, the reply was an interesting no. Apart from a few improvements to infrastructure, they had sufficient to maintain the family group, and had little interest in mass production. This might have been peculiar to this hilly limestone region and a different tale might be told in the flatter arable lands in central Slovenia though.A particularly telling encounter was when asked if the farmers had thought about ploughing and re-seeding the land with productive high-calorific agricultural grasses. A puzzled no was the response. “Do farmers like having lots of wild flowers in their hay?” “Yes, it is good for their animals, they wouldn’t want just grass.” Maybe our rural colleges teaching agriculture to students might wish to reflect on this response from practitioners living close to their beasts on the land. Good for their animals, and also good for the wild pollinators in the fields that help produce the fruit that flavours so much local produce, not least the excellent local brandies and schnapps that accompany food.What was evident though was that public funding was available to maintain this social cohesion – infrastructure funding, agri-environment support, collaborative tourism initiatives. They all combined to create a landscape and an experience that lay pleasantly on the senses: the colourful landscape needed pollinators to keep the wild plants blooming, the farmers needed both plants and pollinators for the produce to maintain their families, and the farms and villages needed a thriving workforce for a sustainable way of life.Sounds idyllic, and it certainly looked that way on the surface, but challenges are facing these rural communities, the same as elsewhere, in that the children grow up, go to college in the cities and many stay for higher paid urban-based careers, fewer returning. In addition, villages close to main transport routes become expanding dormitory villages, where the people in the houses aren’t working the land.It was noted by some that this is resulting in greater neglect of the traditional land management for both hay and forestry. There is renting of land to farmers as the folk in the cities don’t tend the family plots. But the difficulty in this renting out is that the plots can be scattered around, not able to be consolidated, and the renting farmer has to make the calculation if the time taken to get around cutting, baling and storing the hay is worth the return from it.What to bring home to Scotland from this? The need for farming policies that recognise the biodiversity value, and the socio-economic value, of maintaining small-scale agricultural systems. These are less intensive, low-input systems. They support a range of wild plants and pollinators on which we are all reliant. They also provide a focus for co-operative activity in rural communities. But, they can’t compete with the large consolidated agri-businesses in an open market. There is a need to recognise that the smaller systems can provide the highest nature value, and produce quality food, but that this product requires support. And that wild flowers are a key feature of the landscape – for food, for health and wellbeing, and just for the sheer pleasure that they give to us. 6. Supporting nature conservation and rural development: the importance of European funding streamsJenny Schwarz, Scottish Wildlife TrustFirst ImpressionsForest coverage in Slovenia stands at around 60%. I’d read the statistic before I travelled, but wasn’t prepared for the visual impact of this carpet of green as we flew over the country en route to Ljubljana. The other thing that strikes you from the air is the mosaic agricultural landscape; in contrast to the vast parcelled-off expanses of monoculture we saw from the plane as we left the UK, we were looking down onto a landscape of small-scale agricultural and horticultural plots interspersed with (as we would soon see and smell for ourselves) wildflower-rich hay meadows. We would also learn through the week that the forest surrounding settlements is largely owned by local people, with families managing a strip of woodland alongside their agricultural land. First impressions on the ground? After we left the suburbs of the capital we drove for around an hour through the countryside to our base at Gostišče Mlakar just outside Markovec in Loška Dolina. The overwhelming impression was that local communities in the region we passed through must have a strong connection to and sense of pride in their environment; houses are generally well-cared for, gardens are colourful, family vegetable plots are well-organised and brimming with produce, log-piles geometrically perfect.Challenges and OpportunitiesAs the week went on, our programme gave us the opportunity of spending time with a diverse range of people and organisations and it became clear that this sense of pride also extends widely to the country’s rich natural and cultural heritage. The people we talked to are committed to conserving this heritage in a range of ways, upholding traditional approaches and values whilst adapting to changing circumstances and needs.We also learned about some of the challenges facing the country. These include issues relating to the viability and competitiveness of agriculture in today’s context, an increasingly ageing rural population (with the resultant abandonment of agricultural and forest landholdings) and a range of environmental pressures on the country’s rich biodiversity.The development and conservation activities we were introduced to aim to address some of these issues: family farms diversifying into tourism or innovative marketing of produce to provide sustainable additional income and opportunities for the next generation; regional parks encouraging farmers to adopt high-nature value practices; nature reserves carrying out species protection and habitat improvement projects; entrepreneurs grasping opportunities to develop small-scale sustainable enterprises in rural areas. As a fundraiser my eyes are always drawn to project logos and the yellow-starred EU one was by far the most prominent one on this trip. It became evident that without the range of funding streams available through the EU for developing infrastructure and conserving natural and cultural heritage, the inspirational initiatives we visited would simply not have been possible. The role of EU funding streams LEADER The LEADER programme is designed to support sustainable community-led initiatives which encourage rural development. In Slovenia we visited a number of LEADER-funded projects, including one which provided interpretation and marketing for farms participating in a “tourist farm” trail initiative. Our first taste of these tourist farms was a home-made (and delicious) blueberry liqueur, served in the forest using fruit collected nearby and distilled on the farm using the techniques and equipment passed down through generations of the Kotnik family. After serving this aperitif, Helena Kotnik took us back to Kmetija T’Bolenji where she and her mother served us traditional local dishes for dinner. This family-run farm has diversified into offering accommodation and meals showcasing local cuisine. They also offer tours of the farm and the springs which feed nearby Lake Czernicka as well as producing and selling apple and pear juices and jams (in some cases from ancient varieties) and a range of liqueurs. Helena is passionate about keeping the family farm viable in a changing context and is using the techniques and knowledge passed down to her from her late father to do just that. When we left the farm after a delicious meal and enlightening discussion, we all expressed the hope that the next generation (her 8-month-old twins) share the same passion when they grow up! Agro-Environment SchemesIn the Nanos Karst Plateau area we visited the Abram Tourist Farm, a 500-year-old farm which started to diversify around 23 years ago and now runs a hugely popular restaurant which welcomes up to 700 visitors on summer weekends. Abram’s organic fare attracts business from far and wide; on the day we visited I heard Dutch, German and Italian voices as well as Slovenian and English. The success of the initiative is reflected in their income statistics – the owner’s son informed us that 80% of their income now comes from tourism and only 20% from the farm. There were a number of examples of how the farm has built on their traditional practices in order to build their new business – for example meeting the demand for organic meat using their own cattle and constructing a new indoor eating area using timber from the forest area that they manage. The owner’s son highlighted the fact that income from EU-financed agri-environment schemes – for example for late grass-cutting and woodland management – is crucial to the sustainable running of the farm. EEA Programme; LIFE+The group’s guided walk through the Ljubljana Marshes Nature Park was punctuated by frequent stops to admire, identify and photograph a wide diverse range of butterflies and dragonflies; it turns out that the plain hosts almost twice as many butterflies as the entire UK, nearly 90 species in total. We also learnt that although the marshes cover only 1% of Slovenia’s territory, half of all Slovene bird species nest there and even more winter or rest there. The marsh also hosts 27 animal species with an international protection status. The “Ljubljansko Barje” is Slovenia’s largest complex of wet grasslands; a mosaic of hedges and forests, shrubs and watercourses. The area is a Protected Landscape (IUCN Category V), a Natura 2000 site and a Special Protection Area (SPA) for 25 bird species according to the EU Birds Directive. Most of the protected, classified animal and plant species and habitat types are dependent on the preservation of the wetland character of the ecosystem and on the maintenance of sympathetic meadow management. During our week in Slovenia we also saw how ERDF funding had supported the interpretation of historical heritage to promote tourism at the Roman fort at Hrusica and witnessed the impact of LIFE+ funding to protect wildlife at the Secovlje salt-pans, as well as making use of the bicycles provided through innovative use of ESRR funding to ensure “wildlife-friendly” visits at the site! The list could go on and on. What this trip brought home to me was the huge importance of EU funding instruments for nature conservation as well as for rural development which provides income generation opportunities whilst valuing and preserving landscape and cultural heritage. These funding sources are particularly important in a country such as Slovenia, where alternative sources of funding are limited, but they have also formed a vital piece of the funding jigsaw in Scotland, enabling the development and implementation of large-scale partnership projects. Our Slovenia visit took place only a few days after the Brexit vote and the resultant uncertainty over the future of the policy and funding landscape for the environment was the focus of many a mini-bus and dinner-table discussion throughout the course of the week. My experiences on this exchange visit galvanised my resolve to play a part in lobbying at all levels for post-Brexit funding programmes to take the place of the various EU streams in the future. Conclusion and thanks Erin Fulton, RSPB Scotland As a group we represented some of Scotland’s largest nature conservation charities and, naturally, it was from this perspective that we wanted to learn about how Slovenian culture values nature and wildlife. However, while we all may have come from a wildlife conservation organisation the trip addressed broad themes from managing farmland for wildlife and adapting to climate change to how visitors are engaged with nature and how businesses diversify to adapt to new challenges. Despite major emerging challenges in both Scotland and Slovenia, it was encouraging to be involved in the discussions and debates around these themes and how they are negotiated, not only among those individuals from Slovenia but amongst the The variety of themes and examples covered represented how multi-layered and universal some of the challenges to nature conservation are and demonstrated the importance of partnership working between sectors to find sustainable solutions and that to make these solutions work we need genuine co-operation and support between geographical and political boundaries.We would like to thank Libby Urquhart from ARCH for all of her hard work in organising and preparing us for this trip. Big thank you to Bojan Znidarsic from Vitra, Centre from Sustainable Development, for organising the programme and driving us the length and breadth of Slovenia. The programme was funded through Erasmus+ which is managed in the UK by the British Council and Ecorys UK.